Sex Ed for Toddlers: Developmental Considerations

Educators, parents, and others often debate the important question of when sexuality education should begin. In reality, however, values and information concerning sexuality surround children early on, arguably from birth, through their families, the media, and just about everywhere. Based on their exposure to family, media, peers, and other sources, children develop their own understandings of relationships and sexuality in general.  In a controversial example, some have been pretty upset about the television show Toddlers & Tiaras.  Because some learning is happening no matter how intentional (or not), toddlerhood is an ideal time to begin introducing sexuality-related topics in a factual, healthy, and of course, age appropriate way.  Even some mainstream media has caught on, advocating for early sexuality education.

Developmental Characteristics of Toddlers

In order to be effective in working with any age group, an educator or caregiver would need to have at least a basic understanding of developmental characteristics and how they can impact learning. Newman and Newman define toddlerhood as between the ages 2 and 5.  They suggest that there are a few main developmental tasks at this age: increased locomotion, language and communication skills, fantasy play, and self control. The way we talk to toddlers can be especially important. In terms of language skill development, it is important to note that toddlers have some “capacity for semiotic or representational thinking – understanding that one thing can stand for another” (p. 199). However, these capacities for representational thinking are still very concrete in nature.  For instance, some 3 year olds may be able to grasp that a baby grows in a uterus. With language development, toddlers are also known for “fast-mapping” new words. In other words, because toddlers may hear countless words they don’t know in a day, they form initial and partial understandings of a new word, often based on other words they already know. Over time and with more exposure they can build on this understanding. Keeping this in mind, it helps to both repeat new words in different contexts and to associate it with something concrete, such as a toy or an image. One final consideration for working with toddlers is their stage of pyschosocial development as articulated by Erik Erikson. At this age most children struggle with feelings of autonomy versus shame and doubt.  In short, they want to be able to do things themselves, and if they can’t they often experience lingering feelings of shame (Newman & Newman, 2012).

 

Implications for Educators & Caregivers

As students and sexuality educators, we may not anticipate working directly with toddlers very often or at all.  However, being prepared to work across the lifespan can be useful in many contexts, whether being asked to fill in or even working with parents of young children. Of course, there are many barriers to toddlers receiving quality information about sexuality, such as social pressure, perceived age appropriateness, or parental nervousness (Stone, Ingham, & Gibbins, 2013). However, as mentioned before, sexuality education takes place is virtually all settings, whether or not we are calling it that. The developmental characteristics of toddlers discussed above can provide a useful starting place when choosing play activities, toys, and language to promote healthy sexual development.

Here’s a few examples of what sexuality education could look like in everyday life with children between about 2 and 5:

  1. Using accurate language for body parts, including genitals and reproductive organs.  Although it might seem uncomfortable at first, using euphemisms could actually be harmful in the long-term.
  2. Asking children before touching them, and respecting their decision not to be touched. Part of this includes supporting them during that uncomfortable moment when grandpa, or whoever, insists on that kiss goodbye, as the child clings to your leg. This can help empower children to take ownership of their own body; plus, it’s never too early to teach children about consent.
  3. Similarly, encouraging children to respect others’ bodies with a gentle and positive firmness. They might not understand the first many times they are told not to touch, pinch, hit, bite, etc. But they will eventually. It’s never too early (or late!) to encourage them to ask permission to touch another person.  Again, this is about teaching consent.
  4. Allowing, encouraging, validating gender exploration. My 2.5 old went through a phase of some days self-identifying as a boy, other days as a princess. Why discourage that?

Readers, do you have any suggestions or resources for folks working with toddlers? What are some of your favorite books geared toward young children?


 

References

Newman, B.M. & Newman, P.R. (2012). Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach (11th Ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Stone, N., Ingham, R., & Gibbins, K. (2013). ‘Where do babies come from?’ Barriers to early sexuality communications between parents and young children. Sex Education, 13(2), 228-240. doi:10.1080/14681811.2012.737776

 

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6 responses to “Sex Ed for Toddlers: Developmental Considerations

  1. This is a great post. I always felt that toddlers needed to know the proper names of body parts early on, especially their genitalia; it was actually an undergraduate professor that told me that this should be done and it has always stuck with me. I like what you said about asking for their permission to touch them. When I leave from visiting with my nieces and nephews I always say, “I’m not going to see you for a while, can I have a hug?”, and they are always more than happy to give me a hug goodbye. I never liked people hugging me when I was younger and that’s stuck with me for a while. Thank you for writing this post.
    Krissy

  2. I’m always happy to see some attention being given to the little ones. Many people do seem to find it unfathomable that early childhood education should introduce any type of sexuality education, but you’re right that it is so important. I love that you made the point that the “sexuality education” work to be done with this age group is not necessarily a designated “sex ed class” set aside as part of their day, but is largely in the form of just simple everyday approaches and attitudes that we should be doing with them constantly throughout this stage of their lives like the ones you’ve described. My favorite of these is promoting consent by not forcing children to hug their relatives if they don’t want to. This is such a common phenomenon since parents are trying to enforce “politeness,” and as you mentioned, the politeness of hugging/kissing people that they really don’t want to is sending a wrong message to them which sticks with them from a very young age.
    This is a related article that gives us a well-thought-out approach to engaging young girls in conversations: http://jezebel.com/5871822/the-right-way-to-talk-to-young-girls-about-beauty
    Great job!

  3. I enjoyed your post. I agree that toddlers are usually neglected in terms of sexuality education. when can also read to our toddlers; stories that talk about sexuality like “It’s not the stork.” I think consent if very important to teach our toddlers along with learning how to express their feelings. Toddlers should be allowed to say I’m anger, mad, sad, or happy. Another good exercise to couple with correct anatomy terminology, is good touch, bad touch. When start talking to our toddlers about sexuality it makes it easier to talk about more complex issues latter in adolescence, such as, puberty, STI, dating, reproduction, contraception, etc. I think it also build confidence within the care giver because there is very little a toddler will ask that you will not be educated around.

  4. I like the concept of Fast Mapping! Thanks for introducing that to me. It makes perfect sense, but I never really thought about how children actually learned language. Also, I like what you said about asking children if you can give them a hug, or asking to touch them on the back, etc. I think that is a great idea and one I should practice more. Just the other day, I was comforting a child by patting her on the back, and then someone else came up and asked if she could give the girl a hug. The girl said no. Then she asked if the girl wanted to be touched and she said no. I was patting her on the back but had no idea she didn’t want to be touched. Children take physical touch almost as a given activity that they can’t do anything about because its normal, and that shouldn’t be the case (personally). Simply by asking the child, we can empower them in their decisions and lives.

  5. I am so glad that all of your points, whether explicitly or not, came back to the consent. We, as a society, say that we want happy, healthy, safe children, and yet we take away their autonomy as children.

    It’s critical that we advocate for comprehensive sexuality ed from birth. Each time a diaper is changed, the person should say something like, “I’m touching your vulva/penis to wipe you….” etc. to encourage anatomical accuracy, and also to inform. The child should understand that their body is theirs (from birth to death).

    Thank you for writing this post.

    Some resources I like for kiddos:
    What Makes A Baby (http://corysilverberg.com/what-makes-a-baby/), by Cory Silverberg (a book for every kind of family and every kind of kid…)

    and Flamingo Rampant has some great book: http://www.flamingorampant.com/books.html

  6. This is a great post! Sexuality education is occurring around us all the time, whether we perceive it or not. Making sure to educate toddlers, and taking into consideration developmental stages, is integral to becoming a well-rounded educator. I also really appreciate your inclusion of “asking children before touching them and respecting their decisions not to be touched”. Growing up I always felt that I had to let my family members hug me or kiss me on the cheek, even though I always disliked it. Teaching people from a young age that consent is important and they have the ability, and right, to say no is empowering. I would like to observe how families currently teach toddlers about consent, if they do at all, and how supportive extended family members are of teaching toddlers about sexuality.

    Thank you for such a great post!

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